Community co-operatives – realising the potential

11 06 2013

Community co-operatives are organisations set up to provide services to a particular community which use co-operative principles to guide their activities.

When a community is a local community, this is usually easy to recognise as there are physical boundaries, maybe a village, or a block of flats but in an increasingly complex world most of us inhabit many different communities and play different roles in each community. For example, we may be a member of a faith group and a volunteer for a charity and a member of a local sports team.

Almost every activity which involves people coming together for common purpose has the potential to create a co-operative community enterprise. The co-operative enterprise I am most closely involved with, the 3rdimagazine, (www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk) is just such a community with women and men from across the UK coming together to create an on-line magazine which looks at business issues from an ethical perspective. We do not serve a local community but rather serve a community with a shared interest in ethical business practices and in furthering equality and diversity in the workplace.

Community is an active condition reinforced by active membership with people choosing to identify with and support community values and purpose.

Community Investment involves members of that community buying shares in an enterprise that serves that community. It gives people a stake in the success of that enterprise. Common ownership puts the assets of the community co-operative in a similar relationship to its members as the village green is to the inhabitants of a village. Everyone has use of the asset but no-one person has title or claim and no-one person can dig it up and take it away.

Throughout the last century, the model of community action has been one of volunteering and heavily reliant on grant-funding from public sector bodies and individual philanthropy. This is not sustainable. I am a fan of enterprise and I’ve run successful businesses for the last 20 years. I see community enterprise as a real alternative to the market failures in the private sector and the continual withdrawal of funding from the public sector.

Community enterprises provide goods and services to meet the needs of their communities. Community shareholders, unlike traditional shareholders, only expect a fair return not a maximal or rapid return on their investment. This long-term alignment of shareholders needs, to the needs of the community enterprise, promotes long-term sustainability over short-term profit-taking.

At a time when many communities are faced with the loss of local amenities this change in focus is, I think, crucial. And community shareholders are also far more likely to get involved, to become active supporters of the enterprise, and not just remain as consumers of products and services. This engagement also strengthens the business model. This flexibility of role: as customer and supplier and employee and owner is a true stakeholder model, and is more robust and sustainable than the traditional supplier- to business- to customer model. It is this combination of engagement, flexibility and sustainability that leads me to conclude that we need more community enterprise and ownership.

So, what sort of services can community co-operatives provide? Examples are wide ranging and reflect the needs of the communities they serve; from a creche in a tower block containing many single-parent families which enabled parents to seek work through to a launderette in a housing estate. Most successful community share issues focus on an asset, which is why community shops, pubs and community buildings have featured amongst the big success stories for co-operative community enterprise. However, just because a community lacks a service that it wants, does not automatically mean that there is a viable business model that can meet that need. As with any business an opportunity only exists if there is sufficient demand from customers willing to pay a reasonable price for the goods or services provided.

With our long term energy future, particularly our reliance on fossil fuels, looking increasingly insecure, more and more attention is being drawn to renewables, with local communities seeking to benefit from renewable energy projects based in their vicinity. By coming together to form a co-operative the local community can receive a direct financial benefit from the development and can use any profits generated to re-invest in other community projects. The profit generated stays within the community rather than rewarding shareholders outside the area.

From my perspective the key is enterprise and long-term viability and I think that the model of ownership and engagement in community co-operatives means that they can be more robust and sustainable than either their private sector or charitable counterparts.

Advertisements




Putting my money where my mouth is

5 01 2011

When we first launched the3rdi magazine our aim way to provide something totally new, totally fresh.

Business magazines were largely written for men and about men; who was at the top, how much they earned, who their beautiful wife was, what car they drove … you know the sort of thing! We felt women wanted something different, that they were interested in hearing each others stories, to celebrate each others success and to inspire each other to greater achievement.

The3rdi has become the most extraordinary collaborative project, bringing together the UK’s most innovative and entrepreneurial women …and 2011 will see us uniting to change the way the world does business.

I have always been an advocate of collaborative working and believe that working together we can be more than just the sum of our parts. What better way to demonstrate that commitment than making the3rdi magazine; the business that me, Phil and the team have worked so hard to build, into a member owned and run co-operative. Rather than simply reading the magazine you can own a share of the business!

So what does that mean?
Well, it is clear that the current system isn’t working; women are under-represented in the boardroom and in public office and issues such as work-life balance have slipped off the agenda. The bail-out of the banking system has continued to dictate public finances, with the perpetrators of the failures not only remaining in post, but seemingly unrepentant and still drawing huge bonuses.

Now we could sit back and wait for someone else to fix it … or we can take control ourselves – together we can build a community of women, become powerful on our own terms and be the driving force behind the change we want to see.

Over the past few months three areas have emerged as key if we are to improve things.

Firstly, we must empower the authentic voice of women leaders
Getting more women into the boardroom is not enough. It isn’t just a numbers game. A quota system, even if it was to be accepted by big businesses, which looks increasingly unlikely, would fail if it only delivered lots of women in the male mould. By that I mean women who squeeze themselves into the current system rather than changing the system to better fit them and other women.

We need to be powerful on our own terms and effect change within the system which will allow others to follow in our footsteps.

As a first step we are working in an audacious collaboration with Inspiring Leaders, who are taking the lead in transforming the way we do business by supporting more women into influential leadership positions, pioneering corporate transformation and creating sustainable futures. Amongst us will be senior women leaders: women with spirit; women of action; women of courage; women who make a difference.

Participation is by invitation only and limited to 150 influencers so if you think that you could be one of those women, women who dare to step beyond traditional approaches and who can lead change please get in touch.

Secondly, we are committed to improving women’s confidence and self-esteem
Over the past year I have heard women who were heroes of mine, including figures as diverse as Shirley Williams and Leslie Caron, yes, Baroness Williams of Crosby and the star of Gigi and An American in Paris respectively, all saying that they didn’t really have the confidence to go for the big job, for that starring role. Now, no-one dislikes boasting and posturing more than I do but we have to start to promote our positives. Did you know of Sarah Brown’s involvement with PiggyBankKids? No, neither did I until it popped up on a US awards website!

And our young women need positive role models so that they can aspire to be more than a WAG or a contestant on a reality TV show. There is lots to do but there is lots of great work going on in this area, like the GirlsOutLoud programme delivered by the Well-Heeled Diva and the3rdi ambassador, Jane Kenyon.

The co-operative community will bring together and promote best-practice in this area and create a positive environment in which women can flourish.

And thirdly, we need to Network UP!
I have to confess that I am not a fan of most of the networks that currently exist. Many women’s networks are little more than ladies who lunch. Others are simple business exchanges, swapping a photography session for web site design, for example. Many are just frantic business card exchanges, like children collecting the lastest football cards in the playground, working out which they’ve “got” or “not got” and adding them to the pile, never to be looked at again. And at worst, as Lord Sugar recently tweeted, networking can deteriorate into people just “bullshitting with each other whilst they should be working”.

But there is a place for building a community of people you know; people who you can turn to for help, advice and support in growing within a business or in growing a business.

We need to NETWORK UP!, that is to network above our peer group, if we are to build and grow careers and businesses. Again, there is some good practice out there and the3rdi co-operative community will make that accessible to all women.

This is just a glimpse of my vision and of what we will achieve in 2011 and beyond when we all work together.

Karen x